Michael Billington has criticised the raised status of directors within theatre today, arguing that they have taken on the role of “supreme creative artist”.
The theatre critic, who steps down from his role at the Guardian this month after 48 years, said that while he is “not remotely anti-director”, he disagrees with the dominant role that some believe they have.
In a Guardian article published as he ends his reviewing tenure, Billington said: “If there is an aspect of theatre of which I have been critical in recent years, it lies in the elevation of the director to the role of supreme creative artist.
“My quarrel lies with directors who see themselves as creators rather than interpreters – a by-product of the fact that many of them, in order to make a living, frequently work in Germany, where the theatre is far better funded and the director is regarded as god.”
Billington does however credit several directors for providing “new insight into a familiar work”.
These include John Barton’s 1973 production of Richard II, with Ian Richardson and Richard Pasco alternating the lead roles, and Marianne Elliott’s gender-swapped version of Company.
Reflecting on his 50-year career, Billington said revolutions in dramatic form had been the most radical change experienced by theatre, and argued that the “virtual disappearance” of regional repertory theatre has been one of the most regrettable changes.
“Time was when many theatres boasted a permanent ensemble: the most famous was the Liverpool Everyman of the 70s, when Julie Walters, Bill Nighy, Jonathan Pryce, Antony Sher and Pete Postlethwaite were part of a dazzling troupe. Financial constraints and cultural fragmentation make it hard to assemble and retain that kind of team today,” he said.
Billington steps down as the Guardian’s lead critic this month, and will be replaced by Arifa Akbar.